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The sound, though muted, was sharp enough to cut across concentration. The pen ceased its scratching and Grace Dovercourt lifted her head, listening. There was no repetition, but the echo of it lingered in her mind, demanding identification. It had come from outside, at a distance. Careening across the marshland, perhaps? Sounds travelled far in these parts, and the isolation of Grace's house had an eerie tendency to magnify the least of them. Only this particular sound had not been slight.
Shunting her chair back, Grace rose with practised effort, using its solid arms for support. Once steady on her feet, she picked up from the top of the bureau the candelabrum that had been lighting her work. Used to the clump of her heavy right boot, she crossed with her clumsy lilting gait to the parlour door. As she opened it, Jemima came trotting down the stairs in her dressing gown, a frilled nightcap partially covering her frizzy dark locks, candle held aloft. She stopped as she saw her mistress.
"Did you hear it then, Miss Grace? Give me a nasty turn, it did!"
Grace glanced up. "Was it louder from your room? I only caught an echo of it."
Jemima frowned. "Was you still working? Ruin your eyes, you will!"
"Never mind my eyes," said Grace, moving to the front door. It was locked, for the maid had gone to bed some time ago. Jemima was punctilious in shutting them in at night, despite an almost complete absence of late wayfarers along the lane that led past the house. Turning the key, Grace pulled the door inwards and stepped out on to the little porch. A faint wafting of a night breeze played upon her cheeks, but it was warm enough. Behind her, Jemima hovered in the doorway.
"Be careful! Dear knows what marauding fellers are out and about, when there's goings-on with guns and such."
Grace glanced back at her. "Guns?" 'I thought it were a gun as sounded. Nearly made me jump out of my skin!"
The sharp report replayed in Grace's mind. Could it have been a pistol shot? She took the two steps with her dot-and-carry tread and moved down the path and out into the road. Lifting the candelabrum high, her gaze pierced beyond the spill of light into the darkness. It was a moonless night, and Grace thought she saw the low-lying shadow some distance away that marked the edge of Rainham Marsh. Or perhaps it was because she knew it was there.
Nothing moved in the calm August night. And no sound came either to confirm or deny the possible nature of the earlier disturbance. One would be hard put to it to account for a shooting. Poachers did not operate in the marshes, where danger lurked in the form of hidden pools of murky mud that could swallow a man in minutes. The locals kept to the paths they knew, and ventured there only by day.
"I wish you will come in, Miss Grace," came plaintively from Jemima.
Grace took a cursory glance in the other direction, where there was a faint chance that some felon had taken a pot shot at a rabbit in the farm fields. A deeper sense told her that the sound had not come from the north, but failing any sign to indicate what it might have been, she was forced to conclude that she must be mistaken. The only other possibility that suggested itself to her questing mind was a collision in the Thames below the marsh. She would have expected a longer and more booming noise, but there was no saying, now that it was fading in her memory, just how it had sounded.
The chill of night air had begun to penetrate the thin fabric of Grace's dimity gown, and at last she obeyed her maid's behest to come back inside. Jemima relocked the door behind her.
"Was you meaning to come up now? Or shall I make you some nice hot milk? You ought to have something, if you was minded to keep on at that writing of yours half the night."
But the interruption had spoiled Grace's concentration. She would have to read over the document again to recover the sense of it, and recall its special terminology. The work she undertook for the schoolmaster was invariably complicated, requiring more effort than the run-of-the-mill letters she wrote for the illiterates who sought her services. Besides, tomorrow was only Thursday and she had until Saturday to complete it.
Rejecting Jemima's offer, she sent the girl back to bed. But Grace could not retire without tidying her work away, laying the half-finished sheet neatly on top of the pile in one of the drawers, and her pen in its sheath among others set next to the inkwell before shutting up the bureau. Taking a light for her night candle, she snuffed those in the candelabrum and took her time going up the stairs.
Her hip ached a little. The unevenness of her deformed right leg, shorter than its fellow by several inches, was apt to cause a drag to the right when she sat for too long in one position. She was thankful for the built-up boot cleverly fashioned by Billy Oaken, a better craftsman than any she'd had dealings with in Barking. Because his efforts had given her a much easier walk, putting less strain on her hip, Grace was unused these few years past to feel it so much.
Reaching her bedchamber, which lay directly above the parlour, Grace laid down her candle on the bedside cabinet and clumped her way across to the chair. Removing her customary garb, a dimity gown of a sober dark blue, she laid it neatly across the chair ready for the morning. It did not take her long to remove the rest of her clothing, and it was only after she had slipped on her night shift that she sat down on the bed to remove the heavy boot. The usual sigh of relief escaped her. She was glad of it, but ever more glad at night to be rid at last of the burden of its weight.
Feeling at once lighter and freer, her ungainliness of far less significance as she slipped between sheets, Grace snuffed her candle and lay in content for several moments, savouring the luxurious softness of her feather bed. Extravagant it might have been, but its insurance of nights of uninterrupted sleep had more than compensated for the added expense. Grace would rather forgo the pleasure of a new gown to add to her meagre wardrobe for the bliss of this nightly comfort.
Dismissed temporarily from her mind while she made ready for bed, the episode of the alien sound drifted back as Grace relaxed. She wondered again what it might have been, and whether Jemima's theory had any substance. Her imagination played with the images of men hunting through the marshes. Foolhardy, and probably fruitless. Of the few animals that would venture there, they were unlikely to find any to provide them with much sustenance. Besides, how might a bullet find its mark in this darkness? It must have had some other cause.
An enigma, the question revolved in her head for a while, until it became inexplicably muddled as she began to drift off to sleep.
Unconsciousness had almost claimed her when Grace jerked awake again, convinced she had heard something else. Nearer at hand, a scraping sound followed by a loud thump. Staring wide-eyed into the darkness, she listened intently, becoming aware of her heartbeat pumping heavily in her chest. The conviction that there was someone outside the house grew upon her.
She ought to get up out of her bed and go and look. But the thought of dragging on her boot again, coupled with a reluctance to confront whoever it might be, deterred her. It was far more likely to be one of the farmhands come home drunk than a housebreaker. Perhaps he had lost his way and stumbled into her back yard.
Another muffled sound of movement floated up. And then, to her intense relief, there came the unmistakable miaow of a cat. Grace let her breath go and sank back upon the pillows. Was that all? It must have wandered over from one of the nearby cottages, inhabited by a couple of Mr Mayberry's farmhands. Dratted animal! It had given her more of a fright than the earlier noise. The thing had probably got into the lean-to behind the house, where Jemima did the laundry, and knocked something over.
Thankfully, the maid had not woken this time. The poor girl was up and about early enough, it would be a shame if she missed more sleep. If Grace worked hard, poor Jemima had as much and more on her plate, and all of it menial. She was a good worker, and so much more amenable than Mab, with her tendency to scold and cosset. Having cared for Grace from her infancy, her old nurse was altogether too protective. Mab's marriage late in life had bought Grace much prized independence. She was in the middle of deciding she was better off with Jemima, when she fell asleep.
Waking betimes, Grace recalled nothing of the night's disturbances at first. Mr Mayberry would be over, she remembered as she set about her toilet, to collect the previous month's Parish accounts. A tedious job of copying in trip-licate that Grace had undertaken for him on behalf of the Parish Clerk, Joe Piper. She suspected strongly that it was not due to pressure of work that the task had come to her, although Joe's main occupation was as postman for the area. Far more likely Jemima Piper had urged her father to find work that might be put in Grace's way. None knew better than the maid how hard it was for Grace to manage. It had made it impossible for her to refuse the work, which she might otherwise have done.
She had just finished tying and twisting the ribbon that confined her soft brown hair out of the way in a convenient knot at the back, when a startling commotion broke out in the yard behind the house.
Grace distinctly heard a muffled shriek and a clatter as something fell. Jemima! What in the world was amiss?
Clumping as hastily as she could through the door on to the landing, Grace threw up the sash window at the back of the house and looked down into the yard. A bucket had rolled away, its liquid contents sloshing over the cobbles, and the maid was facing the lean-to with both hands clapped over her mouth as if to stop herself from screaming.
Grace called down, "What is it, Jemima? What have you found?"
The girl looked up and saw her, instantly throwing up her hands to beckon madly, shushing at Grace the while. She pointed frantically into the lean-to, but from this angle Grace could not see anything, though she leaned out, craning her neck.
"You'd best come down, miss!" hissed Jemima, beckoning again.
The memory of last night's fracas rushed in as Grace withdrew her head and shut the window. Something had come in last night! A fox or some such. Perhaps it had been shot at in the marsh and made its way here for shelter. It must be an animal. She could not otherwise account for Jemima's frantic efforts to keep silence.
Moving as speedily as she could for the drag of her heavy boot, conscious of dryness in her mouth and a thrumming in her chest, Grace made her way downstairs and along the corridor that ran past the stairs to the inner back door letting into the lean-to. The privy was in the corner to one side, but the rest of the space was taken up by the washtub, the huge tin jugs, and a plethora of bits and pieces that had no other place of storage. Milk cans rubbed shoulders with brooms and a garden rake, and a coil of rope lay untidily over a pair of wooden clogs.
The moment Grace came through the open door, the reason for Jemima's excitement became apparent. Something had indeed come in, but it was not an animal. To one end of the lean-to was the crude stove of stone with its ash-laden fire that was kept alight throughout the day to provide hot water, its smoke escaping through a simple flue behind. Before it, collapsed in a folded heap, with one leg stretched out towards where Grace stood, lay the body of a man.
Shock held her momentarily mute, a hollow of nausea opening up inside her. She became aware that Jemima had ventured back into the outer doorway, pointing, horror in her eyes and the whisper of her voice.
"Belike he's drunk, miss. Or dead!" 'Keep that door wide to let in the light," said Grace curtly.
Thrusting down revulsion, she stepped with difficulty past the upended washtub and into the limited space the intruder was occupying. Steadying herself with one hand against the wall, she crouched down.
"Is he dead?" came fearfully from the maid. "I can't tell yet."
It was difficult to tell anything, for the fellow's face was hidden under one hand, the arm of which was tucked awkwardly into his chest. He was dressed in a greatcoat, extremely damp to the touch, and his boots were caked with mud. He wore no hat and dark hair straggled across his cheek.